Since it is not normally the wont of BMInt’s publisher to gush, I will be on my most careful editorial guard against the printing of the purple. Nevertheless, one can’t help but feel that pride in the current formation of one our newest home teams is altogether warranted as it prepares to tackle the skeptics of Old Europe. At the age of 74, and in a scant few months, Ben Zander has formed a new orchestra. The Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, consisting of 120 players from age 13-21, gave its third concert of its inaugural season last night at Sanders Theater.
The competition is going to be fierce in Holland during the forthcoming tour, where audiences won’t consist mainly of parents and friends. But this team needn’t fear. They have already topped the rankings in the Boston field of four major youth orchestras, and are ready for an Old World Series.
Zander wasted no time introducing his band. The concert opened in a joyful noise, with many decibels and much color and enthusiasm in Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. It may have looked and sounded like 101 strings, but in fact the stage was fronted by a dramatic disposition of a “mere” 70 strings. The 50 brass, wind and percussion players more than held their own, although they could have projected a bit more clearly had the forces been arrayed on risers. While this may have been the prize song of the evening, no Beckmesser was on hand to record any caveats, though I can’t help mentioning Gunther Schuller’s oft-repeated admonition that orchestras need to work as ardently on pianissimos as on fortissimos.
But what we heard was not a conventional orchestral concert at all. Zander and his players devoted most of the evening to delivering the audience a bouquet of concerto movements from the eight winners of an internal competition. How inspiring it must have been to their fellows when those individuals stepped out of their back chairs and into the spotlight.
First into the breach was violinist Francesca Bass. She caught all the excitement and visceral pleasure of the allegro first movement of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4. Her (lower) G-string particularly gave cello-like resonance in the hall, and her upper notes always projected even when the orchestra (and it appeared that many of the 70 strings were not playing) was not as quiet as it should have been.
Colby Parker gave a compelling account of two movements from Vaughan Williams’s pastoral (but surprising) Tuba Concerto. What an unusual solo instrument: in the treble it sounded like a natural horn, in the bass like an organ. We certainly don’t hear such sounds from the tuba in its normal orchestral parts. Throughout its range, which seemed to span three octaves, Parker displayed astonishing artistry. From the galumphing Tubby we know to the subtle serenader we had never before encountered from the tuba, Parker gave us chops and personality, though he was completely hidden behind his large instrument. In the evening’s only comedic moment, he stuffed his curtain-call bouquet into the bell.
Double bassist August Ramos also made his recalcitrant instrument sing. The first movement from Johann Baptist Vanhal’s predictable Double Bass Concerto gave the artist quite a workout. Ramos was all over his (upper) G-string and well beyond his fingerboard in acrobatic and accurate harmonics. His playing managed to project without any sign of forcing—no mean feat from such a foundational instrument.
The third movement of Ginastera’s Harp Concerto afforded tremendous scope to soloist and orchestra and was a revelation in concerto writing. The manner in which solo harp and orchestra mimicked each other was completely original. Anna DeLoi’s extended introduction showed off the vivid coloristic possibilities of her instrument as well as chromaticism requiring many pedal changes. LeDoi gave a dominating, vivid performance and the orchestra, especially the percussion, held nothing back.
In Violinist Mitsuri Yonezaki’s athletic and virtuosic account of the Burlesca fourth movement of Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto, she did not stint on the sardonic, and throughout, she showed no fear and gave no quarter. The orchestra reveled in this movement and Zander singled out principal clarinetist Noel Hwang.
Zander was not on stage when Jonathan Gentry appeared for Mozart’s Oboe Concerto. Gentry gave the beat to the orchestra and got under way for the first movement. What a fine reed he had for the occasion, and what plangent and long phrases he produced with it. Getry’s sense of musical architecture was probably what gave Zander the confidence to surrender his baton.
The saddest music of the evening (or maybe any evening) was Chausson’s Poème for Violin and Orchestra. Violinist Max Tan conjured loss, hope and consolation in the grand manner with deep involvement and burnished tone. His identification with the emotional content of the Poème was exemplary and immersed.
Keith Williams’s emphatic and committed take on the Allegro Appassionato second movement of Walton’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra was evinced by his dramatic embrace of his instrument. He found unexpected lyrical qualities in Walton’s uncharacteristic leaps, angularity and technical demands, and he was one of the clear favorites of his colleagues.
La Valse, poème chorégraphique pour orchestra by Ravel concluded the regular program. If initially the players did not quite convey the lighter-than-air satirical swing of bewigged and powdered waltzers of a more belle epoque, then certainly by the middle of the piece they completely embodied the apotheosis of the dance and the era with a befitting swagger.
Since youth orchestras are perpetually renewing, the evening and the season ended with a bittersweet goodbye to the recent high school graduates, who were soon to be leaving for an impressive array of colleges and conservatories. “Nimrod” from Elgar’s Enigma Variations was the poignant and utterly apt musical tribute to that rite of passage.